DAYTON, Tenn. - A Rhea County horseman hopes he and his four-legged partner gallop away with the top prize in a new reality television series called "America's Favorite Trail Horse," to be aired this fall.
J. Larry Simpson said he and his spotted saddle horse, Bojangles Midnight Blaze, just got back this month from auditions in Texas that landed them a spot on at least one of 13 episodes that end with a single winner on the final show.
"It's my belief that this is the most versatile breed in the world because they can do anything," Simpson said like a proud father as Blaze kept her odd eyes - one blue and one brown - on her lifelong companion to watch for commands and get some petting.
"They're endurance horses, they're jumping horses, they're docile. You can teach them anything," he said as Blaze edged closer and closer to him.
"They've got everything you need; they're a great mountain horse, a great road horse, you can put them in the show ring and take them out and put them on rocks and they'll climb like a billy goat," he said, nodding knowingly.
Simpson, 67, said he hopes everyone in America agrees with him and watches Blaze compete against 99 other trail horses on television.
ABOUT THE SHOW
When "America's Favorite Trail Horse" airs this fall, the top vote-getter in each of the 10 episodes gets $5,000 and a chance at the top prize of $25,000 for first, $15,000 for second or $10,000 for third. Organizers hope to encourage people to take up horseback riding and to rescue horses that need homes. Air dates and times will be announced later.
"America's Favorite Trail Horse" - which will air on HRTV on Dish Network - is a new series open to members of the American Competitive Trail Horse Association, according to organizers and the association website.
Competitive trail horses are trained to take on anything that ranch work or a trail ride can throw at them - bridges, log-strewn paths, creeks and dead-end trails that force them to back up and down hills, Simpson said.
Spotted saddle horses are a Tennessee breed that comes from a mix of the Tennessee walking horse and the Spanish pinto pony, said Simpson, who has ridden and trained his own horses for 21 years. Spotted saddle horses are known for their smooth gait, long-distance speed and endurance.
Simpson said 6-year-old Blaze has already collected 26 individual world championships and competes regularly in Extreme Cowboy Races across the country. Both contests involve high-level riding skills.
Simpson and Blaze demonstrated their teamwork last week. As Simpson's wife, Sandy, anxiously watched, he used quiet commands and subtle pressure with his legs to urge Blaze atop a wooden teeter-totter, then to leap from one side of a creek bank to another.
Sandy Simpson worries when her husband competes because of his recent bypass surgery but said he's undeterred by the coming competition.
The first 10 episodes of the show were taped during auditions the Simpsons just completed. Each week, 10 competitors will vie to be among the 10 finalists in the last three shows, they said.
The Simpsons said some of the details on where the show can be seen are still being worked out, but the main thing is to remember that when it does, vote for the horse and rider from Rhea County, Tenn.
"If they can't remember the names - 'Blaze' or 'Larry' - look for the black-and-white horse and that yellow pad under the saddle, and the man in the white shirt and that hat," Sandy Simpson said, pointing to her husband's tan cowboy hat.
Blaze's buddy said he'd like to win the competition and the prizes but hopes also to serve as an example to others his age looking for ways to stay active.
"It would be a nice thing [to win] for myself and my horse, and there's money involved," he said. "But at the same time, for me, I have an interest in the community in which I live. My message to people is: Let's pick the sticks up and get on about life."